Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Turning Up the Heat

Climate change hasn’t generated much controversy in the US presidential campaign, yet, but that could change, based on the latest observations of the global climate. In separate reports, preliminary tallies of the average global temperature in 2007 place it among the warmest years since records have been kept, while scientists conclude that the Antarctic icecap is melting faster than previously thought. When combined with the recent conclusions of one of America’s best-known climate scientists, the pressure on politicians to lead a more aggressive response to the problem could intensify this year.

It’s understandable that the issue hasn’t attracted more attention, so far. All of the Democratic front-runners espouse aggressive action to deal with climate change, so it hasn’t been a major differentiator among them. And while the Republican candidates offer a more diverse set of views on climate, the issue hasn’t become a major point of contention, as has immigration. At the same time, climate change has generally been subsumed within the more prominent, “hot button” subject of energy policy, driven by sustained $3 per gallon gasoline and oil prices hovering in the neighborhood of the inflation-adjusted record high.

Although climate change might rise to greater prominence in the election campaign naturally, once the primaries are over and the two parties’ nominees face each other—presumably exposing larger differences in emphasis and proposed policies—the issue could heat up even sooner, as the recent climate news percolates through the media and public awareness. Even subtler and more worrying than the news about Antarctic ice and a warm 2007 are the concerns of NASA scientist James Hansen, who has apparently concluded that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases already exceeds the level at which it must eventually be stabilized, in order to avoid catastrophic consequences. If his view becomes the consensus, it has serious implications.

The positions of many of the non-US delegations to the recent Bali conference on climate change reflected the goal of stabilizing atmospheric CO2 at 450 parts per million (ppm,) which climate models suggest would probably limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius. With the actual concentration currently at 385 ppm and global emissions still increasing, as the industrialization and deforestation of the developing world proceeds, 450 ppm is a challenging goal, but one that might still be achieved without wrecking the global economy. 450 is no one’s idea of a “soft landing”, but the fact that we are still 65 ppm away, while increasing at 2 ppm per year, appears to leave us some headroom, particularly if we allow for a bit of “overshoot.” Unfortunately, Dr. Hansen, whose views have garnered significant attention in the past, now believes that 450 ppm is too high, and that the safe target ought to be 350 ppm, which we passed in the late 1980s.

The point of all this isn’t to argue whether 350 or 450 ppm is the right target for atmospheric CO2, or whether either one is even feasible. Rather, it is that people take Dr. Hansen seriously, and this development, together with observed changes in the climate, could significantly ratchet up the urgency of taking strong action to tackle the US contribution to global warming—with unpredictable political consequences. The conventional wisdom seems to be against pushing the Warner-Lieberman greenhouse gas cap-and-trade bill to a vote in the Senate, which would effectively put both parties on the record on the issue in an election year. Will that assessment hold up, if the public latch onto the latest developments in a big way, or one of the presidential candidates uses them to turn up the heat? Or will bad economic news drown out anything short of an immediate environmental crisis?

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